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He stalked into Melbourne's Maria's at a minute before closing time on a warm, still summer afternoon, a tall Mediterranean man among the laden shelves of fine Egyptian handbags, Parisian scarves and the feathered and veiled confections that earned the name 'hat' within Australia's haute couture. Racks of designer gowns fluttered in his wake.
"Good afternoon and welcome to Maria's. May I help you with anything in particular?" The words fell from Arabella Gable's lips, polite, professional. She guarded herself too well to allow any hint of impatience or weariness at the end of a busy day to colour her words.
The man turned his head and Bella suppressed a gasp as a flood of memories stripped time away. Six years ago this man had held her heart in his hands.
Bella's throat tightened as feelings rushed through her. Fury, hurt, disillusionment. Yet as she looked at him, the barriers around her heart shook. It must be from her anger.
And from shock. You didn't expect to ever see him again. Why was he here? Her mind sought answers, but didn't find them.
"When I explain matters, you'll have little choice but to help me." The rich, smooth accent of his Italian heritage shivered over her, so familiar, once so dear.
Never again. 'Luchino." His name emerged on a whisper of sound. She had believed him out of her life forever. What brought him to Australia, to Melbourne? Here, to Maria's? Against her will, Bella's gaze roved across his features, took them in as she had in Milan all those years ago. Dark hair, dark brows, angular chin, chocolate-brown eyes and a mouth made for seduction, all of it packaged in the sculpted aplomb of Armani,pure black.
From the fitted shirt to the dress trousers and leather belt that encased slim hips and long legs, Luchino Montichelli shouted wealth, power and sensuality.
Banked anger lurked in the backs of his eyes. 'Yes, it's Lucone and the same. It's been a long time, Arabella." His gaze moved over her. Lowered lids hooded his expression, but not before Bella saw the leashed awareness in his eyes. 'The years seem to have favoured you."
Her heart skipped a beat in reaction to that examination. Not because she reacted in kind! No. But how dared he look at her like that? Her nerves on edge, Bella lifted a slim hand to the knot of blonde hair secured at her nape, then cursed herself for the movement, which might be interpreted as awareness of his interest.
"They've been good to you, too." She made the grudging admission. 'You look well."
Appealing, dangerous, strong and determined and somehow even harder, tougher than the Luc she had known. But then, he'd made some tough moves, hadn't he? Conscienceless ones. Like taking his child from her mother then ignoring her himself. 'Why are you here, Luchino? How could I possibly help you with anything?"
Even the sound of his name on her lips battered at a place deep inside her.
"I never planned to see you again, Arabella." Luc's mouth tightened as he went on. 'I assure you, I would rather not be here."
"You'd rather not see me? I'm afraid I return that sentiment." Bella tossed the words at him, yet for a moment she caught a softer expression in his eyes and her heartthat betraying creatureremembered something that had seemed so special, so right, and a soft vulnerability welled up inside her.
Bella stamped down hard on the reaction. Those memories were an illusion! 'I'm about to close the store so whatever you're here for '
Maria would kill her for trying to push a customer out of the place. Bella didn't doubt that her boss's Milanese accent would thicken with anger, too. Well, too bad. These were extenuating circumstances, Luchino didn't appear to be here as a customer, and in any case Maria wasn't here to say anything. She was at a fashion expo in Queensland.
"By all means, lock the store."A well-shaped hand gestured towards the front door. 'Better still, give me the key and I'll do it for you while you put the remainder of the day's takings into the safe. What I have to say to you is best said in private."
"What would you know about closing procedures?" But his family owned jewellery stores dotted all over Europe and various other parts of the world. Those stores would all follow the same basic closing actions as here.
Luchino had learned his jewellery-design skills in one of the family's stores, or so he had once said. She pushed the thought aside. His career didn't matter to her. Luchino no longer mattered to her, except to act as a warning not to allow anyone to hurt her again. 'Anyway, I'm not sure I want to speak with you alone. We didn't exactly part as friends, in case you've forgotten."
"I've forgotten none of it." The words sounded like a threat as his gaze moved over her.
What did he see aside from pale, smooth skin, eyes a lighter shade of brown than his, and bone structure that Bella frankly thought too strong and angular to be truly appealing? Why should she care what he thought, anyway?
"And I run a store a mere few city blocks from here." His gaze drifted away from her, to the racks of clothes, the hats and scarves and handbags. 'I think I can work out how to secure this place."
"That's you?" Bella tried not to let shock colour her tone of voice. A Diamonds by Montichelli store had opened here two weeks ago. Bella had seen it in the papers and dismissed it from her mind. She strove to sound only mildly interested now. 'I thought the new store was an offshoot of the Sydney store, that there'd be a local manager. I thought you focused on design, anyway."
I thought I would never have to see you again. I don't want to see you!
Each time Bella's sisters had suffered or worried or felt scared over the past five years, a part of Bella had silently linked Luchino to that pain because he was an abandoner, too, just like their parents. And he had hurt Bella, toyed with her emotions when he had no right.
If he intended to remain in Melbourne, if she bumped into him, caught sight of him over and over, how would she cope? The key dropped from her fingers, clattered onto the glass counter, a mockery of the calm control she wanted to portray. 'Have you moved to management? Are you here to get things settled then hand the store over to someone? The Sydney store has a local manager '
Please let Luchino be about to hand the store over to someone else.
"I no longer work with the family. Diamonds by Montichelli is my store, a separate entity from all the others. I may share the family name, but ultimately the store will succeed because of my work, my design and my reputation."
Something painful crossed his face as he spoke the words. He lowered his gaze. His fingers closed around the key. 'I have a lot of roles hereowner, head designer, manager, salesman, craftsman. Whatever is needed at any given time, I do it. I'm here to stay."
Here to stay and out of sorts with his jewellery-making family? Oh, Bella could relate to that and she didn't want to. She didn't want any common ground with him at all. How could she feel even a mild sympathy for a man who walked away from his child?
"That's why the store isn't called simply Montichelli's like the others."
"That's right." Luchino turned his broad back to her and strode towards the front of the store. 'Finish up, Arabella, so we can get this discussion over with."
"I'm leaving in a minute." Bella made the warning to him, but she had to work to control her shaking hands as she emptied the contents of the cash drawer into a bag and dumped it in the small timed floor safe. Her sheath dress of peach Oriental silk rustled as she moved.
As he turned back towards her, Luchino stopped to examine each of the Design by Bella gowns displayed on mannequins to left and right. Despite her anger, Bella's breath hitched as she waited to hear his verdict.
Finally, he spoke. 'You're a woman of hidden talents, Arabella. These are good. At least your skill with design and creation will mean there's half a chance of fixing the mess you've made."
She had almost relaxed into his praise. Now she pulled herself stiffly upright. 'Mess? What mess?" How dared he say she had made a mess?
"You've gone from modelling, to coercing middle-aged ladies out of huge amounts of money in business ventures that have no guarantee of succeeding." Accusation tightened every contour of the sculpted face. 'You must really be proud of yourself."
"Modelling was only ever a job to put money on the table for me and my sis" She stopped abruptly as she heard herself attempt to justify her earliest choice of career to him.
Then the rest sank in. 'What do you mean? I haven't Bella had hammered out a deal with Maria Rocco, had agreed to bring her designs exclusively to Maria's and keep them here on a five-year contract, only if Maria purchased her year's worth of already-created stock up front, but it was a reasonable agreement, because Bella intended to succeed.
"Maria Rocco is my aunt."As Luchino said it, he watched her face for her reaction. 'That makes this very much my business."
Bella pulled her face into a tight mask to cover her shock and uncertainty. Maria was Milanese, it was true, but the older woman had lived in Australia almost all her adult life. 'Maria is a Rocco, not a Montichelli, and she told me she has no family."
Bella clung to that knowledge, even as she noted that Luchino did indeed share some similarities of feature with Maria. That had to be just happenstance, though. What was a nose, after all, or the tilt of a chin?
"My aunt left Milan, left the family and changed her name long ago. She no doubt considered herself alone." Harsh anger radiated from him as he went on. 'I'm sure you saw that as an advantage when you set out to rob her of a vast amount of money."
"I did not! How do you even know about the agreement I have with her?" She stopped, didn't want to reveal anything to him. But he clearly knew something.
Luc's hand rose to touch a spot above his heartas though to assure himself of the presence of something in his shirt pocket? And yes, a faint square outline showed therea photo, perhaps.
Before Bella could wonder about it, the mouth that had once offered soft seduction, had once whispered hungry words, love words to her that were oh, so false, tightened again into a strong, determined line.
"I told my new finance manager I wanted to meet Maria. He'd heard Maria took on a protégé. When he mentioned your name, I asked him to get details for me."
"That's an invasion of Maria's privacy, and of mine!" One that Luchino had apparently taken in his stride.
"It was a timely intervention."He accompanied the declaration with a squaring of his shoulders. Low warning filled his tone. 'Estranged or not right at this moment, I won't see Maria go under financially because of you.
"You somehow bullied her into buying a year's worth of designer gowns at an astronomical price with no guarantee whatsoever that any of them would sell, and no way for her to get her money back if they don't. On top of that, you talked her into employing you here to make more gowns which also may not sell."
His face darkened. 'A five-year contract where Maria carries the burden and risk, and you swim along on the high tide of all that money she's handed to you. Don't bother to deny it."
Bella frowned. She had slaved over that three-page agreement herself. Luchino made it sound one-sided but it wasn't an unfair arrangement, because Maria knew Bella's only aim was success for both of them. Bella pushed the inkling of unease aside. 'It's an agreement, actually, not a contract." She hadn't wanted the expense of a lawyer, but Chrissy's past boss, Henry Montbank, had helped Bella to make sure the agreement was water-tight.
"It's robbery in the guise of a work arrangement." 'You'd call me a thief? Howhow dare you?"While Bella simmered in fury, questions vied for space.
Despite Maria's indications to the contrary, she had a family? That family was the Montichellis?
One fact lodged deep: Luchino had investigated not only Maria, but also Bella. 'You've pried into my life, behind my back, as though you had every right to do that. Just what did you find out about me, about my sisters? How far did you dig around, expose us?"
"I investigated your finances,Arabella, the work you've done in the years since I last saw you. And I learned everything there is to know about your arrangement with my aunt. I won't apologise for doing that."He said the last with a hard glare in his eyes.
"I intend to reclaim Maria as my aunt." His expression softened a little as he said this. 'She's family and I want that bond with her if it's at all possible. I'd have arranged to meet her before now if she hadn't been out of the city."
A hunger for family was bizarre, given his history. Yet he seemed sincere. Bella needed to remember he could be both convincing and duplicitous!
Bella glared right back at him, but sudden weariness tugged at her. Her hands ached from the hours spent in the adjoining sewing and consultation room, meticulously stitching Chinese cloisonné beads to the fitted sleeves of her latest creation while Maria's sales clerk took care of customers.
Bella wanted to go home, slip into one of her black catsuits and indulge in an hour of Pilates in front of the TV.
Instead she had to deal with an angry man she had hoped never to see again, a man who believed she meant his aunt financial harm. 'Despite what you say, you mustn't have investigated very well, Luchino, because Maria is in no financial danger from me."
"On the contrary, the purchase of your stock almost bankrupted her."Luchino raked a hand through his thick, dark hair.
Glossy, silky hair with a tendency to wave
Bella pulled herself up straighter and gave Luc the benefit of her coldest stare. It was a lot of money, but she had needed a strong capital injection to enable her to buy the best fabrics and accoutrements to create more gowns, and her designs justified the cost.
It might take a few years, but Maria would get back her investment, and much more, eventually. 'Your aunt is very wealthy, Luchino. She owns a penthouse apartment in the best part of the city, drives the latest-model luxury car and goes on overseas buying trips every other week.
"Maria didn't hesitate to agree to my terms, and she can afford to carry things along until my gowns start to really pay for her." Bella's employer walked and talked affluence and until this moment Bella had seen no reason to doubt her.
Luchino shook his head. 'Maria has spent beyond her means for years. The apartment is rented, the car is a lease and those buying trips have put her heavily into debt."His gaze darkened as he looked around the store. 'She was in no position to buy into a speculative venture like yours."
"My gowns will sell. Maria has made a good investment, and I intend to prove that." Yet even as Bella said it, her stomach knotted.
She hadn't asked Maria's financial status. She had assumed it on the evidence in front of her. Now doubt formed and Bella experienced that hated feeling of losing control. If Maria really had no money, just a pile of debts
"I can't fail."The words were a stark statement, because she simply couldn't. Failure had ceased to be an option when their parents unforgivably abandoned her, Chrissy and Sophia while her sisters were still in high school. Every struggle since then had underscored that abandonment, and underscored Bella's condemnation of the man before her because he had mirrored her parents' actions.
Bella had striven to succeed, and she had done it. For her sisters, and to assure herself they would all be OK, and now she had to do it to assure herself she was OK. 'As I build a client base, more gowns will sell until eventually Maria ends up making a strong profit from her investment."
But none of that would work if Maria went bankrupt in the meantime.